Issue 3, 2015. June-July

   

THE HIDDEN LAYERS OF RUSTAVELI'S WORK

Levan Ramishvili, an award-winning Georgian poet and linguist, believes the powerful imagery in Shota Rustaveli's 12th-century masterpiece, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, warrants deeper study and more international scholarship. written by Tatjana Montik

Even though he was an author from the 12th century, poet Shota Rustaveli seems omnipresent in modern-day Georgia. Nearly every city in the country has a street named after him and many still learn his masterpiece, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, by heart.

The poem, which has long been seen as a guide to the virtues Georgians hold sacred, has also inspired poets and linguists around the globe.

Nevertheless, Tbilisi-based linguist, essayist and poet Levan Ramishvili believes Rustaveli's work has not received enough international recognition.

"Why should Georgia be known worldwide as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and not as a country of the great philosopher Shota Rustaveli?" he asked, adding that many countries, including Germany, have established institutes overseas to study Georgia's great writers.

The Ancient Wisdom of Rustaveli

An institute modeled on the Goethe Institute could help foreign scholars delve into the powerful imagery Rustaveli used to craft his masterpiece, Ramishvili said.

The award-winning linguist has already published a book about the deeper significance of Rustaveli'swork - and he hopes he can inspire others to look past the obvious themes in Rustaveli's poem.

Ramishvili, who received Georgia's highest literature prize in 2007 for his translation of the Bhagavad Gita from Sanskrit to Georgian, said the experience helped him look at Rustaveli's work in a different way.

"Since I needed inspiration for my poetic translation of the 'Gita,' I naturally looked for it in Rustaveli's work, so that I could maintain good form as a poet," Ramishvili said.

"And as I was going deeper and deeper into 'The Knight,' I discovered that this poem is not only about love and friendship, as you might see at the first glance."

After studying Sufi poetry, as well as critical pieces of ancient Indian literature such as the Upanishads, Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, Ramishvili came to realize the powerful figurative language in Rustaveli's work echoes that in ancient Eastern poetry.

He said ancient Oriental philosophy opened a window to explore the symbols evoked by Rustaveli in his epic poem.

"Only when you have an understanding about ancient Oriental philosophy, the symbols of the world's poetry, about the archetypes of these symbols, only then you can understand that Rustaveli used them to bring a more profound sense into his work, which usually stays uncovered," Ramishvili said.

An example, he said, is how Sufi poetry uses a woman's figure. "One of the most important figures of the Sufi poetry is the figure of a woman and the different parts of her body: her face, her lips, her eyes and even the way she is looking. When a Sufi poet is praising a woman, in reality, he is praising God for all of the woman's different qualities."

Ramishvili believes Rustaveli uses a similar literary tool in "The Knight." "If you read the poem correctly, you realize that this is not just a fairytale of a man who is looking for his beloved and who is helped by a true friend, but the story of a man looking for truth, as well a way how to attain this highest form of wisdom".

"The Knight," he stressed, is not just about three men, Tariel, Avtandil and Fridon, searching for a stolen beauty, Nestan, but about three key elements of man looking for God and the truth.

Ramishvili came to this conclusion after reading the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem, which also uses the figurative tool of three men seeking a woman. In reality, the three men personify the qualities of one person: the heart, the body and the mind of a human being. After comparing these texts, Ramishvili concluded that, "[i]n Rustaveli's work there is Tariel who represents the heart, Avtandil who signifies the mind, and Fridon who symbolizes the body."

There are many more possible symbols in Rustaveli's work, including the cave, which could stand for meditation; the cypress, which could be interpreted as eternal life, gained after overcoming death; and the lions, which could represent human fears.

Unfortunately, in traditional translations, the hidden meanings and layers of the poem have been left unexplored, Ramishvili said.

A Timeless Classic

Even without the additional interpretations, however, Rustaveli's work is widely respected in Georgia and abroad.

"It is hard to believe that in 12th century Georgia, the knowledge that Rustaveli described in his poem was possible," Ramishvili said.

Rustaveli not only showed the way for a man to achieve a higher truth, but he also praised individual freedoms to an extent that seems incredible for an author of the 12th century.

In Rustaveli's epic, his heroes are not following the morals of a certain society; they are guided by their own principles and their inner voices. In "The Knight," for example, a Christian freely married a Muslim.

"Being a phenomenal author of global importance, Shota Rustaveli belongs not only to Georgia but occupies a first and foremost place in our world's culture, and his wisdom is very much worthy of being known world-wide," states Ramishvili.